Australia clinched a thrilling final 20-17 to claim the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens crown and bring to an end Fiji’s dominance that had seen them take the last five titles in Hong Kong.
A pulsating end-to-end final played in an electrifying atmosphere was settled in the final minute when Nathan Lawson scored in the corner to cue wild celebrations from the Australia contingent.
It had been 1,308 days since the last final was played in Hong Kong back in 2019, and the highly anticipated comeback edition certainly made up for lost time with a classic encounter between Fiji and Australia.
Double Olympic champions Fiji led through tries from Josua Vakurinabili and a pair from Waisea Nacuqu, but Australia hit back through Henry Hutchison, twice, and Tim Clements before Lawson sealed the comeback victory to continue the fantastic form which saw them clinch the 2022 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series title
Fiji were aiming to continue their love affair with Hong Kong with a record breaking sixth straight title but it was not to be for the Pacific Islanders.
France were losing finalists last time Hong Kong hosted a Series event in 2019 but had to settle for bronze on this occasion, seeing off Samoa 19-17 thanks to a pair of tries from Stephen Parez Edo Martin and one from tournament top try scorer Aaron Grandidier who ran in 11 tries and 55 points over the weekend.
This was perhaps the most hotly contested Hong Kong Sevens in history as two quarter-finals and one semi-final required extra time to separate the teams in highly competitive contests, before the closely fought bronze and gold medal finals.
Australia reached the final with a 10-7 win over a valiant France outfit thanks to a finely executed golden point penalty kick from the outstanding Maurice Longbottom following an earlier try from Josh Turner.
Longbottom had already shown match-winning exploits earlier in the day, scoring a sensational try in extra time as Australia performed a remarkable comeback from 19-5 down to beat Ireland 26-19 in the quarter-final.
Australia had qualified for the knock-out matches thanks to pool victories over New Zealand (24-17) and Hong Kong (43-0) despite a 22-17 defeat to Samao who to
Fiji’s route to the final saw them squeeze past Commonwealth champions South Africa 12-7 with tries from Joseva Talacolo and Jeremaia Matana to clinch in a tense quarter-final, before overcoming Pacific neigbours Samoa 19-7 in a pulsating semi-final, with two scores from Filipe Sauturaga and one from Joseva Talacolo.
Fiji had progressed through their pool on Friday and Saturday with free-scoring wins over Japan (59-12), Spain (35-21) and the USA (24-0).
Samoa had earlier broken Argentinean hearts with a try from Vaovasa Afa Sua in extra time securing a 19-14 quarter-final victory, while France proved too strong for USA in the last quarter-final with a pair of tries from Aaron Grandidier.
The highly experienced Olympic bronze medallists Argentina beat a youthful USA 36-0 to finish fifth.
New Zealand bounced back from their disappointment of failing to reach the quarter-finals in Hong Kong for the first time ever, by securing fifth place with a trio of victories on Sunday. The All Blacks Sevens triumphed over Kenya 34-0, Spain 24-7 and Canada 33-5 to finish ninth.
Uruguay showed plenty of potential on their debut as a Series core team, recording impressive victories over Great Britain (19-17), Kenya (10-7) and Japan (33-10) to finish in a respectable 13th place.
Australia captain Nick Malouf said : “After having done so well last year, to come out here and back it up straightaway and win Hong Kong for the first time since 1988, incredible. I think we're cutting a few years off our coach's life leaving it so late!
“We knew coming into this weekend that we’ve just got to keep grinding and doing what we've been doing really well, working hard for each other and we know they're going to come for us now so we have got to keep getting better.
“There's not much between the teams. This is the Olympic qualifying year, so everyone's going to be coming in red hot and it's going to make for great viewing and tough games on the pitch.”
Fiji coach Ben Gollings said: “At the end of the day, we made a final and we've been consistent. It’s bitterly disappointing that we lost. Ultimately 30 seconds of rugby was the difference in the end but credit to the boys was a tough year and they stuck at it and like I said the consistency and being in another final is fantastic.
Hong Kong was the first of 11 rounds on the men’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023, which promises to be the most competitive and exciting Series to date with more at stake than ever before as the top four ranked men’s and women’s teams will earn Olympic qualification for Paris 2024.
At the other end of the table in the men’s competition the number of teams for the 2024 Series will reduce from 16 to 12 to equal the number of women’s teams and align with the Olympic competition structure, meaning fans can expect an intense battle to avoid relegation throughout the 2023 Series with every match and every point counting towards the final Series rankings.